After a year of research, Richmond City Council is set to vote on the creation of a Human Rights Commission that would focus on discrimination claims, including those involving sexual orientation, transgender status and gender identity.
But the city attorney’s office has not signed off on the commission.
The ordinance, scheduled for a vote Monday night, would create a panel of 13 volunteers whose purpose is to advance civil rights issues of Richmond residents and possibly offer arbitration for those who say they’ve been wronged.
“If someone encounters a business or vendor or city employee that they feel isn’t respecting their rights, we need a venue for that,” says 5th District Councilman Parker Agelasto, who helped spearhead the effort.
A council-approved task force spent the last year gathering information about other commissions across the state. If approved, the commission would take in discrimination claims based on all the classes listed in Virginia’s Human Rights Act with the addition of “sexual orientation, transgender status or gender identity.”
Those three classes are unprotected by federal or state laws, meaning that efforts to legally or civilly punish such discrimination have no legal teeth. But despite their lack of enforceability, Agelasto says, the task force wanted to include them.
“What we’re trying to do is establish an environment in which people feel comfortable in the city of Richmond,” Agelasto says. “If [LGBTQ people] are not comfortable, we as a governing body can give them an outlet to express that to us and give us a chance to do better.”
The city attorney’s office didn’t return a request for comment about the lack of an approval of the measure, but Agelasto says that commission organizers agreed to move forward without it.
Other cities in the state, such as Virginia Beach and Charlottesville, include LGBTQ status in their human rights commissions’ lists of protected classes, and both cities handle issues that arise from this community in different ways.
Virginia Beach, whose commission offers only education and advocacy for marginalized communities, got involved in a campaign against a School Board decision to cancel a high school’s Gay Straight Alliance event linked to a student’s suicide.
The event eventually was rescheduled and attended en mass. The chairman of the Virginia Beach commission, Rajeeb Islam, says Richmond City Council “can be brave” by adding LGBTQ protections “and show they are an open city just like we are.” Charlottesville’s commission goes a step beyond education and features a staffed office that offers an arbitration process for complaints related to race and other classes protected by state law.
For unenforceable LGBTQ-related complaints, the group documents the issue and puts them in a database to share with General Assembly members in the hopes of adding protections to state law in the future.
“We don’t have a plethora of [LGBTQ]-related cases,” says Charlene Green, manager of the investigative body for Charlottesville’s Human Rights Office. “But I think it’s enough that folks are trying to live their lives with a sense of social quality that would be expected of anybody else.”
“It makes it challenging when the state of Virginia doesn’t try and support it,” she adds.
In a statement sent to Style, Mayor Levar Stoney acknowledges the importance of the commission as a whole, and stresses how important it is to include LGBTQ protections in the final version of the bill.
“We need to ensure that no matter who you are, where you come from, where you live, how you worship or who you love, that you have the opportunity to live, work and play in a welcoming, diverse and inclusive city where you can be protected from discrimination,” Stoney said in the statement.
“The creation of this commission reinforces our commitment to these ideals and our intent to ensure they are safeguarded.”
If the ordinance passes Monday night, the commission gets the OK to begin appointments, a process that is expected to take months.
Agelasto says the scope of the commission, including whether it will offer an arbitration process or solely offer education and advocacy, would be worked out by members following their appointment.